Anna L.’s review:
“For three weeks, I dissolved into the sweet-smelling air and moist earth of the Peruvian mountain jungle. Each day I thanked the world for its beauty and overwhelming serenity. Traveling the small towns, villages and trails running through tropical forests with their lively mountain streams has filled my world not only with bright colors, but also with moments of feeling a deep peace of mind. These are the moments I will be thinking of in my daydreams once I’m back in the confinement of New York City. I was extremely lucky to have Dina and Stas as my company for this trip. Stas won me over with his sincere kindness and easy-going temper. Everywhere we went we were treated with kindness, mainly due to his knowledge of the language and an understanding of the local customs and ways of life. With his help, we got a closer, more intimate experience of the local life. The Diet Week in Situlli center is very hard to describe with words, as they cannot fully explain the deep internal changes, the cleansing of body and mind. Such things can only be felt when your whole being is ecstatic, overflowing with love for the jungle around, the magical river, the unbelievably kind staff working in the center, shaman Winston with his kind, penetrating eyes and gentle singing during the ayahuasca ceremonies, and just all the things that are alive. For everything I have in my heart and soul — a big thank you to the Earth, Peruvian people, Stas and Dina!”
Dina Ostrovsky’s review:
This is a small review of our trip into the Amazonian jungle, Peru and our introduction to plants of power. The first surprise awaiting us in Amazonia, however, was not shamans or plants, but people: Stas and Diana, our guides to the world of Amazonia. So first of all, our guides:
Stas. He has graduated from the University of Montreal with a degree in philosophy and mathematics. Fluent in five languages: Russian, English, French, Hebrew and Spanish, currently learning the Quechua language. Stas is one of those people who become mesmerized by ancient culture and the life of indigenous people. He has lived among the uyghurs in China and traveled across Pakistan. He’s been in Peru for a year now, and it really seems like he’s going to stay for a while. Stas really impressed us with his deep knowledge of the culture and history of the Indian tribes living in Amazonia.
He knows a lot about the local plants and their uses in healing and shamanism. The way he can connect with just about anyone is truly amazing. Thanks to Stas, we were introduced to Don Rosendo, the famous local curandero. The chief(apu) of Chirikyaku village has consulted him about the best ways to accommodate tourists in their rural community. Stas knows infinite stories about local life and Amazonia’s inhabitants, and is always happy to share them. A journey with him will reveal the secrets of Amazonia, and will take you to places unreachable by ordinary tourists. Traveling with Stas, we got to see and experience the real Amazonia: lively, vibrant, stunningly beautiful, one of the most abundant, magical and unexplored places on the planet Earth.
Diana. Before going to Peru, I became infatuated with the works of Pablo Amaringo, a Peruvian artist. On my first day there Stas introduced me to Diana, and it seemed for a moment that the spirit of the beautiful female ayahuasca vision came from Amaringo’s paintings to welcome me to Peru. I carefully hunted Diana’s beauty with a camera in hand, but I think the technology fails to show her beauty, charm and a special spiritual glow. Diana was born and raised in Lima, where she has also received a degree in psychology. After finishing college she went to work in Tarapoto, at the first center designated to fight addiction with the healing help of jungle plants. That center (Takiwasi) was founded in Tarapoto 18 years ago by a French doctor named Jacques Mabit. Inside the Takiwasi center doctors, shamans and psychologists work side by side, expanding their vast experience of working with addictions.
After working in Takiwasi, Diana spent 8 years living and studying in France before returning to Peru and beginning work as a psychologist at the Situlli center. The center conducts ayahuasca ceremonies, as well as diets with other plants and herbs. Diana’s job is to prepare the guests for the ceremony, help them integrate the experience and provide support during the dieting process. We got very lucky with our guides: for the beautiful Diana, all doors were open. Thanks to her, we were let into the Situlli center, got taken on a super interesting excursion around the Takiwasi center, and heard a story about the healing plants. The first part of our tour is trekking down to the Toroyacu waterfall and learning about the daily life of Quechua Indians in the Chirikyacu village.
After 1.5 hours of driving on a beat-up dirt road out of a town named Lamas we arrive to a charming village. The houses are scattered over the hills, surrounded by mountains and mountain jungle — sacha. The houses are simple, and we are kindly welcomed — Stas is well known here. We’re looking for a guide to the waterfall but it turns out to be not easy: all men are busy harvesting coffee beans. Only 15 years ago this place was run by the cocaine mafia. Then, Americans chopped down the coca trees and brought in coffee instead. The guide should be appointed by apu (the chief), but he is busy harvesting coffee as well. The local shaman, Don Rosendo, lives on the way to the waterfall. He is friends with Stas, and has even offered him to be an apprentice once.
We make arrangements in town for the guide to come to Don Rosendo’s next morning and decide to spend the night over there. For 2 hours we walk through the jungle, replaced every now and then by a coffee or banana plantation — everything is very beautiful. The trek is not easy, with the trail constantly going up or downhill, it’s very hot and humid. We wade through a breathtaking mountain river, just as men with huge bags of coffee cross it in the other direction; the work day is over. Don Rosendo’s estate consists of several wooden shacks — one is used for storing coffee and rice, the second is a kitchen, third is used for sleeping. No signs of electricity or running water — they live just like in the old days.
The old man (Don Rosendo is 84) greets us cheerfully, and invites us into one of the shacks — the kitchen. The room holds several low chairs and a wooden shelf for pots. A fire burns in the middle, on top of it is a huge metal kettle with a herbal brew. Don Rosendo seems to be very pleased that he can show us the potion. He says it has about 250 different herbs in it and is meant to strengthen your bones and energy. Tomorrow morning he’s taking it to Lamas, where the concoction will be shipped off to France. We cast respectful glances at the pot and take a careful whiff. Stas warned us very explicitly not to ingest any of the old brujo’s potions if we want to trek to the waterfall tomorrow and not spend the entire day brutally detoxing.
Don Rosendo is one of the oldest local shamans. He used to work in the Takiwasi healing center and many of the young shamans that currently work there are his students. To this day, he has people from Lima coming to him to “diet”, or partake in retreats with plants of power. The old man used to work with ayahuasca but refuses to do it anymore, saying it has been “corrupted” by white people. Don Rosendo’s wife invites us to wash off our faces and prepares dinner: rice, beans, boiled egg and boiled green plantains. All of that gets washed down by sweet, watery coffee. We are shocked by the plantains’ taste: locals eat it in huge amounts in place of bread, while we find the taste to be awful.
Nonetheless, having dinner with an Indian family by a jungle fire is extremely pleasant: we chow down on rice, drink the sweet coffee, peek at the mysterious potion and listen to the sounds of the jungle. The feeling is unreal: we got thrown out of our realities and into a completely different environment, time, pace of life, values…
At bedtime they take us to the “diet” house — same kind of shack, equipped with shelves for sleeping and plastic mattresses. Stas asks for blankets and they are brought to us, making our sleeping conditions pretty great considering the circumstances. Before sleep, Stas tells us about Don Rosendo: the old man is relatively well-off, and the people with bags of coffee that we met while crossing the river were his employees. Old man has 8 kids and about 60 grandchildren. The majority lives nearby in their own small houses. The kids are not interested in healing, and the old man tried to offer Stas to be his student — that required an 8-month-long healing plant retreat, so Stas declined. Don Rosendo told Stas many stories about his life — for example, the romance he had with a mermaid when he was young. He would go to visit her in the underwater kingdom, and each time upon returning he would find his clothes completely dry.
Stas says that the locals have many stories and fables about the water spirits, both male and female. He also says that the shamans are separated into shamans of the sky and forest and shamans of water. I draw a parallel with SIberian shamanism — there, the shamans are divided into shamans of the top, middle and under-world.
Saturday. An early breakfast at Don Rosendo’s — the man himself has left to Lamos with his magic potion, but his son, daughter in law and grandson came for breakfast. They are bright-eyed, beautiful people, and even though I regret not getting any pictures with the old brujo, the pictures of his family come out amazing. Food is the same: rice, beans, bananas. Our guide arrives from the village, a handsome young man. He is 19, and has already spent 2 years serving in the military until he was 17. We really like the guide — as we walk, he tells us about the plants and animals, and the ways local Indians use them.
Each plant in the jungle can be used: vines were used to make baskets, some plants were edible, other used as medicine or poison. The road to the waterfall goes through thick jungle constantly switching from uphill to downhill, it’s hot and humid, but everything around is so bright, unusual, interesting — we just can’t take our eyes off of it!
We look at unusual insects: large ants carrying leaf fragments — they grow their own mushrooms inside the anthill, giant fluorescent butterflies, caterpillars the size of a hand and so on. Every now and then we hear the rustle of a lizard or a snake passing by the trail. Somewhere in the distance monkeys can be heard hollering, but no animals are seen: it’s to easy to hide in the jungle, and hunting in this area has only recently been stopped. Some of the local species include armadillos, sloths, opossums, ocelots and jaguars.
The Toroyacu waterfall is tall, lively and beautiful with another, slightly smaller sister waterfall to its right. According to the local legends this waterfall is home to the spirit of a bull that protects the jungle from hunters. We swim in the waterfall; the powerful water streams knock the wind right out of you and provide a charge of energy that cannot be compared to anything else. We’re surrounded by amazing and vivid jungle, running water and colors that no camera can capture. We meditate, enjoying ourselves.
A heavy tropical rain starts to fall, and we wait it out before heading back to Chirikyacu — 4 hours, a different trail this time. The trek isn’t easy after the rain; there are sticky wet chunks of clay all over the place that we fall into with every step and slip on when going downhill. We reach the village at sunset. A mountain village on a Saturday night is an idyllic sight: young guys are playing football, three of the elders and the apu — chief are sipping on ginger-flavored moonshine made from rice. They drink slowly and with dignity, while discussing local business. They offer some moonshine to us as well, and ask Stas for advice on handling business with the town’s visitors in such a manner that would make everyone happy — the tourists, the guides and the community. It was all very soulful. We hitched a ride on a truck and off to Lamas we were.
Sunday. Lamas. Lamas is a small city located 800 meter above sea level, very cute and cozy. Half of Lamas population is Quechua Indians, the other half is mixed. Astonishing views, mountains all around. Stas gets a phone call from his friend Diana, who invites us to visit the Situlli center. That center specializes in healing “diets” consisting of many healing herbs. It’s owned by a local shaman-curandero Winston, and Diana works for him as a psychologist.
Monday. The Chasuta village. Situlli Center. Getting to the center takes 3 hours of driving on a mountain road towards Chasuta village. After spending the night, we went on a beautiful morning trek to the northern hot springs. Warm mineral water relaxed our muscles, and we walked back very slowly and leisurely. All around us were cocoa plantations, bananas and patches of jungle. After this, we continue our way towards the center on a boat with a motor attached to it. Local residents are riding in the boat together with us, coming home from a day in Chasuta. Chasuta is a center where they come to sell and buy things, and this boat is the main means of public transportation. People who live in the small river villages are on their way home, bringing back treats like cookies and pepsi-cola. This same boat also serves the purpose of a social club where people exchange all the latest news and gossip. The locals observe us with curiosity: there are very few tourists in this area and when I start taking pictures the boat captain slows down so I can get a better shot. The feelings I get from people here are tranquility, joyfulness, soulfulness and transparency. We disembark just outside a tiny pastoral village called Yucanayacu. 40 minutes later we arrive to the Situlli center — about ten cabins situated on the shore of a crystal-clear jungle river.
Situlli Center. Amazon healing and shamanism. Diets. One of my goals during this trip to Peru is becoming a little more closely acquainted with Peruvian shamanism and, of course, the magical ayahuasca vine. I’ve heard about it a long time ago but never had a desire to try it — it was portrayed as a very strong psychedelic that can tear the psyche to shreds. I took part in the Moscow International Transpersonal Conference as a translator last summer. That is where I heard several reports about ayahuasca, its healing properties and different aspects of application in healing practice. I made a mental note there and then to try it myself, since I work with shamanic practices and should know what the buzz is about.
This spring, I had the perfect chance — a friend invited me to a ceremony. To my surprise, the psychedelic effect of the plant was (at least for me) not that strong. But the healing effect turned out to be extremely powerful: an energy issue I was working on for several years has disappeared, I started sleeping better, and, most importantly — I began losing weight. All of that caught my interest, so I decided to find out a little more about this while in Peru. I was lucky (as always:)). The lovely Diana became our guide in this trip and invited us to the Situlli Center. Winston, Situlli’s owner, worked as a shaman in Takiwasi for a long time before opening up his own center. Situlli is located deep in the jungle, and getting there requires 3 hours of driving on a mountain road, riding a boat, and then walking into the jungle for an hour. People come here for the ayahuasca rituals and healing plant diets. Everybody has a different goal — someone is looking for strength and spiritual enlightenment, someone is battling disease or addiction. The tiny center stands on the shore of the crystal-clear Yucanayacu river.
The structures are not that numerous: a kitchen, maloca — the space for rituals (I immediately started calling it the ayahuascery in my head), a few bungalows for guests. In the surrounding jungle there’s about 10 tambus — open huts for the herbal dieters. A tambu is a hut with no walls, a grass roof and a small fence around it. A platform with a mattress in the middle, and a mosquito net over it. A person going into the diet retreat remains in the tambu for 7-10 days, and stepping outside is allowed only for short periods of time. Communication is also not allowed and only a session with a psychologist may be requested. Those working with serious problems sometimes stay up to a month and a half. During that time they do several diets with different herbs. The healing herbal drinks make people weak and groggy, so there usually is no desire to move much anyway. To me, the “dieters” sleeping under the white mosquito nets looked a lot like caterpillars in cocoons, and the shaman himself — like the owner of a silk factory. A caterpillar sleeping in a cocoon always transforms into a beautiful butterfly and flies away. Me and Anna are interested in trying out the diet ourselves.
I need to lose weight, and Anna just wants to do the retreat and get to know herself a little better. We decide to do the ayahuasca ceremony with Winston before deciding on whether or not we want to do the herbal diet. Next day is the ayahuasca ceremony. We are woken up by Diana for a cleansing tobacco ceremony. If ayahuasca is considered the mother of plants, the father of them all is tobacco. Tobacco has protective properties, shielding the human from invasion by evil spirits. We are led to the river and handed an empty bucket and a quarter glass of potent tobacco brew, which we quickly drink and chase down with lots of water. The goal is to cleanse through vomit. I think vomiting is an important part of Peruvian shamanism. Local tobacco seems to have some psychedelic properties, and after I throw up the devilish potion, I start feeling “high”.
I begin a “tobacco trip”. It gives me a surge of energy and all I want to do is run somewhere. Diana directs me into the river to cool down and cleanse. Anna and I sit in the water for a while, rinsing off the nicotine excitement. My eyesight becomes very vivid and saturated and I start taking pictures, trying to capture the unbelievable colors of the jungle. After a little while the excitement turns into weakness and we fall asleep. We wake up quiet and still slightly weak, and spend our time before the evening ceremony eating and exploring the surroundings.
Before the ceremony begins, I talk to Winston and explain to him that sometimes during a ceremony I need to take a walk by myself to do my shamanic practices. He says okay. The ritual begins at 7pm. We sit down on the mattresses in the maloca — ayahuascery. Winston comes in, wearing shaman clothes, and prays. We walk up to him one by one and each drink a cup of the bitter and thick vine brew. The taste doesn’t seem that bad to me.
Aside from Anna and myself, there are 9 more people partaking in the ceremony — the “dieters” have emerged from their cocoons. After a little while Winston starts singing icaros — ritual songs. The shaman is not making them up, the words come to him during ceremonies or in his dreams. I feel the ayahuasca start moving inside of me, responding to the shaman’s icaros. I feel like I understand the words of the song — it goes like Ayahuasca, mother, grow, grow, heal, heal. I vomit into the designated bucket and my insides calm down for a while. I decide to take advantage of the permission given to me and go for a walk to the river. The night is beautiful but I feel no shamanic energy, so I soon return to the maloca.
After a little while Winston starts singing another amazing icaros, this time in Spanish, about Christ coming to the streets of Jerusalem and how he’s riding a donkey, his friends are with him and everybody is welcoming him. I don’t know Spanish but understand all the lyrics; I double-checked later. I get carried into this warm painted vision — the streets of Jerusalem, decorated pots, all in the style of Peruvian Christian art. I realize that with this icaros, Winston has opened the door to higher worlds. I begin to feel good.
I die and become the jungle soil, full of bliss, feeling the plants grow right through me. My soul tries to fly upwards; I quietly hum an old song (“There is a city of gold” by Boris Grebenshikov) while trying to convince my soul to return to my body, illuminate it, make it healthy and beautiful — I’m not forgetting the weight-loss goal of this trip. My soul seems to agree, so I fall asleep. I wake up at 11:30 and relocate to the bungalow to continue sleeping.
Next morning, Anna and I decide to stay in the center to try the short, 5-day herbal diet. We speak with Winston, Diana translating, and he tells each of us what the ayahuasca revealed to him; he describes our problems pretty accurately. He tells me I am very persistent and confident in what I do, but I have problems with my love life — very true. Even though me and Anna have very different problems, we both get prescribed the same plant — “mucura”. We both get some slack and don’t have to stay in the tambus, to my delight. In the evening, we receive the first 2 cups with the mucura tea.
There wasn’t much in the cups, about 2 big sips, but after the first taste we fell into a stupor: the mucura brew tastes like a mixture of the juices of onion, garlic and radish, seasoned with wasabi. Anna is so shocked by the first sip she almost faints. The morning was probably the roughest. At 6 am, one of the center’s workers was outside our tent yelling “amiga, amiga!” (“girlfriend, girlfriend!”), and we had to crawl out of our little bamboo rooms, all sleepy, to drink another cup of that hellish potion. We still managed to fall back asleep right after, though. The breakfast surprised us as well — we got 2 bowls, each containing a boiled carrot, potato and a beet, without any seasoning of course.
During the diet, no salt can be ingested and all consumed food should have as little flavor as possible. On the first day we weren’t so happy, but by the third day we were chowing down on boiled beets with real enthusiasm. The days during the diet are spent without a care: lots of sleep, lots of swimming in the magic river. I write and do buddhist practices while Anna meditates, does qigong and reads medical literature. Everything around us is calm and beautiful, with the giant psychedelic-looking butterflies flapping around, the noisy river and the jungle sounds. But the most unusual thing was my dreams. Winston has warned us about the effects of mucura that make dreams very vivid. All our dreams became high definition and very detailed. In mine, I was visited by old friends and lovers with whom I still have some unresolved issues. I do some serious work with my own dreams as well as Anna’s — long story short, we are not letting ourselves get bored.
It is not recommended to communicate with anyone while doing the herbal diet, but we are quietly breaking the rules and have little talks with the people who have already finished their diet. We meet Inga from Norway, 55 years old and struggling with osteoporosis and knee pain. She says after 5 days of dieting most of the pain disappeared. Her husband Diego, a retired engineer, is currently organizing a program that will heal addiction with the help of power plants. He works with local shamans and doctors that specialize in herbal diets, as well as learning shamanic techniques by himself for many years. On the 4th day me and Anna are both hit by a crisis — an all-consuming weakness.
We go back to sleep after breakfast, unwilling to move, our bodies starting to smell like mucura. Again, vivid dreams at night, conversations with ex-boyfriends, a recurring dream about cleaning my room and mopping the floors. There’s clearly some cleansing going on in my system. I had the most powerful dream on the third night, about my inner sceptic that looks down on the whole world and keeps saying that nothing is good enough. I looked him in the face and said: you’re not letting me see the colors, and then we became one.
After the diet is over we go through the ayahuasca ritual once again before leaving the center. Total time spent there was 8 days. The results of the experiment are: something light and delicate has changed in my perception of the world, perhaps it’s the heightened serotonin levels but the inexpressible clarity of being became more tangible, the colors around me got brighter, and the inner critic became more intelligent. It’s very hard to evaluate experiences like this one, just like it’s hard to explain why you sometimes spontaneously start smiling first thing in the morning. But i do have one measurable result — I’ve lost weight! We are sent on our way by the center’s staff, Winston giving us instructions — the diet should be continued for 2 more weeks. We cannot eat sugar, dairy and alcohol. It’s also prohibited to take medicine and have sex. So the experiment is not over yet. But we are leaving this retreat ready for new adventures.”